Vancouver’s affordability crisis: A battle for the soul of the city

Are you a renter in Vancouver struggling to make ends meet each month? Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals could care less. That bleak message came through loud and clear in this year’s provincial budget, which was introduced last week in the legislature.

Vancouver is in crisis. The real estate market is out of control. Finding an affordable place to rent is like looking for a needle in a haystack. And even when you do find one, the threat of renoviction looms.

It’s almost unfathomable that this situation has been allowed to fester so long with so little action from government. Vancouver is the real estate industry’s Wild West. Corruption is ubiquitous, speculation the rule.

Protest for affordable housing | Photo by Caelie Frampton

Protest for affordable housing | Photo by Caelie Frampton

Over the past year, the plight of those trying to enter the housing market has finally gained some attention, with protests like those under the banner of “Don’t Have a Million Dollars.” But the focus on those who are looking to own property has overshadowed the struggle of those just trying to scrape together enough money to pay the rent.

Paul Kershaw, founder of the advocacy group Generation Squeeze, told City News last week this problem is city-wide and affects youth disproportionately, “Housing affordability isn’t a problem in a couple of Vancouver neighbourhoods. Housing has become unaffordable for young people just in general.”

It’s worth stating the obvious to draw out the full scope of the problem: When housing is unaffordable, public health and the overall quality of life suffers for the majority of people. For too many, tough choices are a constant dilemma: Pay the bills and the rent, or buy groceries? For those a little better off, the choices are slightly less dire but stressful nonetheless: Pay the rent, or enroll the kids in sports or arts programs?

For tens of thousands of families in Vancouver, precariousness and the anxiety it brings are daily realities. All because we’ve allowed housing to be treated like any other commodity, in which the needs of the market outweigh the needs of the people.

The B.C. government’s new budget, introduced last week, did little-to-nothing to address this crisis. This is consistent with the provincial government’s general approach: taking care of big business and the wealthy while ignoring growing inequality and endemic poverty.

Writing in, Kershaw criticized the B.C. Liberals’ budget as inadequate, while noting again the generational implications of Vancouver’s crisis, “The 2016 budget offers little to tackle this problem. Yes, it allocates $355 million over five years to put toward housing affordability. While this money will help up to 2,000 families, it is not up to the task of fixing a housing market that is broken for younger citizens, who number in the hundreds of thousands.”

Kershaw is one of many voices calling on the province to introduce additional taxes on property and financial disincentives on housing speculation and flipping. But the B.C. Liberals have responded to all these appeals by making it clear that their priority is not to do anything to upset those with housing equity.

Last year Finance Minister Mike de Jong explained, “We are not interested in taking steps that will see a diminishment in people’s equity, the value of people’s homes.” And no wonder, their strongest base of voter support is with upper middle class and wealthy homeowners. For an example of the equity bonanza some have enjoyed, take Premier Clark herself. CTV reported recently that her Vancouver half-duplex has increased in value by $674,000 since 2009 – and by $175,000 last year alone.

Vancouver’s municipal government, for its part, plays a double game on the affordability crisis. They often point, legitimately, to the failure of higher levels of government to support and fund affordable housing. The provincial government does bear the greatest responsibility, and it’s also true that this crisis has worsened in Vancouver since the federal government got out of the business of building and funding affordable and social housing. But this doesn’t excuse municipal authorities.

Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, who identifies with progressive values, has failed to adequately use the tools at his disposal to alleviate housing costs. His signature election promise of ending homelessness by 2015 came and went unfulfilled, as we’ve noted here before. And Robertson has mostly held back from using his bully pulpit to draw attention to the problem and push the feds and the province. You don’t have to be a vulgar Marxist to suspect that part of Robertson’s reticence is related to the fact his party, Vision Vancouver, is backed by big money from the city’s property developers. Operating without a realistic or credible definition of what qualifies as affordable housing, Vision Vancouver often simply conflates the construction of new for-profit rental housing with affordable housing.

We’re way past time for real action to provide affordable rental housing to those who live and work in Vancouver. It is more than an urgent conversation we need to be having. This is a battle for the soul of the city.

For starters, developer money must be evicted from Vancouver’s city hall. Another prerequisite is a new tenant occupying the B.C. legislature. Real change, however, will only come when renters get better organized and progressive-leaning politicians find their courage.